How Am I Going to Explain a Dead Angel?

"The General Zapped an Angel" by Howard Fast, originally published in 1969, recommended by his granddaughter, Molly Jong-Fast


When Electric Lit asked me to write an introduction to my grandfather’s story “The General Zapped an Angel” I was thrilled.  I had long fantasized about a day when I would be able to sit down at the computer and write an introduction to a work by either my feminist mother [Erica Jong] or my communist grandfather but it turns out writing these introductions is a lot harder than it looks when one gets into a weird and horrible meditation on the past.  I loved my grandfather and hated him, loved his work and felt it took him away from us. I was in awe of his talent and enraged towards it, too.

I spent a lot of time with my grandparents growing up because my parents divorced when I was young and I never really felt like I belonged in either home. But oddly, I belonged in my grandparent’s home.  My grandfather was a maniac workaholic.  He got up every morning at five am and I’d hear him in his office banging away at the typewriter keys. My grandfather wrote every day until he died. He was obsessed with getting good reviews from The New York Times. He never got over The New York Times.

There is something tragic and inexplicable about the passage of time, and its relentless forward momentum. Both my grandparents are firmly planted in the earth never to exist again on this mortal plane. There are some things we don’t know how to love until they’re far in the rear view.

The story “The General Zapped an Angel” was originally published in 1969. It’s a story about the consequences of American militarism. The two-star General Mackenzie, celebrated for his wartime “victories” (and whose origin story includes puppy- and kitten-killing missions as a child) has shot down an angel. General Mackenzie, along with his three-star General commander, four religious chaplains, and the press, are all scratching their heads in disbelief, praying the prayers they can remember, and trying to figure out what a dead angel on the battlefield is a “sign” for.

While time marches on, so it seems, does war and all its inexplicable violence. Today more than ever, my grandfather’s anti-militarism resonates with the demands of the world around us.

Molly Jong-Fast
Author of Normal Girl

How Am I Going to Explain a Dead Angel?

“The General Zapped an Angel”
by Howard Fast

When news leaked out of Viet Nam that Old Hell and Hardtack Mackenzie had shot down an angel, every newspaper in the world dug into its morgue for the background and biography of this hard-bitten old warrior.

Not that General Clayborne Mackenzie was so old. He had only just passed his fiftieth birthday, and he had plenty of piss and vinegar left in him when he went out to Viet Nam to head up the 55th Cavalry and its two hundred helicopters; and the sight of him sitting in the open door of a gunship, handling a submachine gun like the pro he was, and zapping anything that moved there below—because anything that moved was likely enough to be Charlie—had inspired many a fine color story.

Correspondents liked to stress the fact that Mackenzie was a “natural fighting man,” with, as they put it, “an instinct for the kill.” In this they were quite right, as the material from the various newspaper morgues proved. When Mackenzie was only six years old, playing in the yard of his North Carolina home, he managed to kill a puppy by beating it to death with a stone, an extraordinary act of courage and perseverance. After that, he was able to earn spending money by killing unwanted puppies and kittens for five cents each. He was an intensely creative child, one of the things that contributed to his subsequent leadership qualities, and not content with drowning the animals, he devised five other methods for destroying the unwanted pets. By nine he was trapping rabbits and rats and had invented a unique yet simple mole trap that caught the moles alive. He enjoyed turning over live moles and mice to neighborhood cats, and often he would invite his little playmates to watch the results. At the age of twelve his father gave him his first gun—and from there on no one who knew young Clayborne Mackenzie doubted either his future career or success.

At the age of twelve his father gave him his first gun—and from there on no one who knew young Clayborne Mackenzie doubted either his future career or success.

After his arrival in Viet Nam, there was no major mission of the 55th that Old Hell and Hardtack did not lead in person. The sight of him blazing away from the gunship became a symbol of the “new war,” and the troops on the ground would look for him and up at him and cheer him when he appeared. (Sometimes the cheers were earthy, but that is only to be expected in war.) There was nothing Mackenzie loved better than a village full of skulking, treacherous VC, and once he passed over such a village, little was left of it. A young newspaper correspondent compared him to an “avenging angel,” and sometimes when his helicopters were called in to help a group of hard-pressed infantry, he thought of himself in such terms. It was on just such an occasion, when the company of marines holding the outpost at Quen-to were so hard pressed, that the thing happened.

General Clayborne Mackenzie had led the attack, blazing away, and down came the angel, square into the marine encampment. It took a while for them to realize what they had, and Mackenzie had already returned to base field when the call came from Captain Joe Kelly, who was in command of the marine unit.

“General, sir,” said Captain Kelly, when Mackenzie had picked up the phone and asked what in hell they wanted, “General Mackenzie, sir, it would seem that you shot down an angel.”

“General Mackenzie, sir, it would seem that you shot down an angel.”

“Say that again, Captain.” 

“An angel, sir.”

“A what?”

“An angel, sir.”

“And just what in hell is an angel?”

“Well,” Kelly answered, “I don’t quite know how to answer that, sir. An angel is an angel. One of God’s angels, sir.”

“Are you out of your goddamn mind, Captain?” Mackenzie roared. “Or are you sucking pot again? So help me God, I warned you potheads that if you didn’t lay off the grass I would see you all in hell!”

“No, sir,” said Kelly quietly and stubbornly. “We have no pot here.”

“Well, put on Lieutenant Garcia!” Mackenzie yelled. 

“Lieutenant Garcia.” The voice came meekly. 

“Lieutenant, what the hell is this about an angel?” 

“Yes, General.”

“Yes, what?”

“It is an angel. When you were over here zapping VC—well, sir, you just went and zapped an angel.”

“So help me God,” Mackenzie yelled, “I will break every one of you potheads for this! You got a lot of guts, buster, to put on a full general, but nobody puts me on and walks away from it. Just remember that.”

One thing about Old Hell and Hardtack, when he wanted something done, he didn’t ask for volunteers. He did it himself, and now he went to his helicopter and told Captain Jerry Gates, the pilot:

“You take me out to that marine encampment at Quen-to and put me right down in the middle of it.”

“It’s a risky business, General.”

“It’s your goddamn business to fly this goddamn ship and not to advise me.”

Twenty minutes later the helicopter settled down into the encampment at Quen-to, and a stony-faced full general faced Captain Kelly and said:

“Now suppose you just lead me to that damn angel, and God help you if it’s not.”

But it was; twenty feet long and all of it angel, head to foot. The marines had covered it over with two tarps, and it was their good luck that the VCs either had given up on Quen-to or had simply decided not to fight for a while—because there was not much fight left in the marines, and all the young men could do was to lay in their holes and try not to look at the big body under the two tarps and not to talk about it either; but in spite of how they tried, they kept sneaking glances at it and they kept on whispering about it, and the two of them who pulled off the tarps so that General Mackenzie might see began to cry a little. The general didn’t like that; if there was one thing he did not like, it was soldiers who cried, and he snapped at Kelly:

“Get these two mothers the hell out of here, and when you assign a detail to me, I want men, not wet-nosed kids.” Then he surveyed the angel, and even he was impressed.

“It’s a big son of a bitch, isn’t it?”

“Yes, sir. Head to heel, it’s twenty feet. We measured it.” “What makes you think it’s an angel?”

“Well, that’s the way it is,” Kelly said. “It’s an angel. What else is it?”

General Mackenzie walked around the recumbent form and had to admit the logic in Captain Kelly’s thinking. The thing was white, not esh-white but snow-white, shaped like a man, naked, and sprawled on its side with two great feathered wings folded under it. Its hair was spun gold and its face was too beautiful to be human.

“So that’s an angel,” Mackenzie said finally.

“Yes, sir.”

“Like hell it is!” Mackenzie snorted. “What I see is a white, Caucasian male, dead of wounds suffered on the eld of combat. By the way, where’d I hit him?”

“We can’t find the wounds, sir.”

“Now just what the hell do you mean, you can’t find the wounds? I don’t miss. If I shot it, I shot it.”

“Yes, sir. But we can’t find the wounds. Perhaps its skin is very tough. It might have been the concussion that knocked it down.”

Used to getting at the truth of things himself, Mackenzie walked up and down the body, going over it carefully. No wounds were visible.

“Turn the angel over,” Mackenzie said.

Kelly, who was a good Catholic, hesitated at first; but between a live general and a dead angel, the choice was specified. He called out a detail of marines, and without enthusiasm they managed to turn over the giant body. When Mackenzie complained that mud smears were impairing his inspection, they wiped the angel clean. There were no wounds on this side either.

“That’s a hell of a note,” Mackenzie muttered, and if Captain Kelly and Lieutenant Garcia had been more familiar with the moods of Old Hell and Hardtack, they would have heard a tremor of uncertainty in his voice. The truth is that Mackenzie was just a little baffled. “Anyway,” he decided, “it’s dead, so wrap it up and put it in the ship.”


“Goddamnit, Kelly, how many times do I have to give you an order? I said, wrap it up and put it in the ship!”

The marines at Quen-to were relieved as they watched Mackenzie’s gunship disappear in the distance, preferring the company of live VCs to that of a dead angel, but the pilot of the helicopter flew with all the assorted worries of a Southern Fundamentalist.

“Is that sure enough an angel, sir?” he had asked the general.

“You mind your eggs and fly the ship, son,” the general replied. An hour ago he would have told the pilot to keep his goddamn nose out of things that didn’t concern him, but the angel had a stultifying effect on the general’s language. It depressed him, and when the three-star general at headquarters said to him, “Are you trying to tell me, Mackenzie, that you shot down an angel?” Mackenzie could only nod his head miserably.

“Well, sir, you are out of your goddamn mind.”

“The body’s outside in Hangar F,” said Mackenzie. “I put a guard over it, sir.”

The two-star general followed the three-star general as he stalked to Hangar F, where the three-star general looked at the body, poked it with his toe, poked it with his finger, felt the feathers, felt the hair, and then said:

“God damn it to hell, Mackenzie, do you know what you got here?”

“Yes, sir.”

“You got an angel—that’s what the hell you got here.”

“Yes, sir, that’s the way it would seem.”

“God damn you, Mackenzie, I always had a feeling that I should have put my foot down instead of letting you zoom up and down out there in those gunships zapping VCs. My God almighty, you’re supposed to be a grown man with some sense instead of some dumb kid who wants to make a score zapping Charlie, and if you hadn’t been out there in that gunship this would never have happened. Now what in hell am I supposed to do? We got a lousy enough press on this war. How am I going to explain a dead angel?”

How am I going to explain a dead angel?”

“Maybe we don’t explain it, sir. I mean, there it is. It happened. The damn thing’s dead, isn’t it? Let’s bury it. Isn’t that what a soldier does—buries his dead, tightens his belt a notch, and goes on from there?”

“So we bury it, huh, Mackenzie?”

“Yes, sir. We bury it.”

“You’re a horse’s ass, Mackenzie. How long since someone told you that? That’s the trouble with being a general in this goddamn army—no one ever gets to tell you what a horse’s ass you are. You got dignity.”

“No, sir. You’re not being fair, sir,” Mackenzie protested. “I’m trying to help. I’m trying to be creative in this trying situation.”

“You get a gold star for being creative, Mackenzie. Yes, sir, General—that’s what you get. Every marine at Quen-to knows you shot down an angel. Your helicopter pilot and crew know it, which means that by now everyone on this base knows it— because anything that happens here, I know it last—and those snotnose reporters on the base, they know it, not to mention the goddamn chaplains, and you want to bury it. Bless your heart.”

The three-star general’s name was Drummond, and when he got back to his office, his aide said to him excitedly:

“General Drummond, sir, there’s a committee of chaplains, sir, who insist on seeing you, and they’re very up tight about something, and I know how you feel about chaplains, but this seems to be something special, and I think you ought to see them.”

“I’ll see them.” General Drummond sighed.

There were four chaplains, a Catholic priest, a rabbi, an Episcopalian, and a Lutheran. The Methodist, Baptist, and Presbyterian chaplains had wanted to be a part of the delegation, but the priest, who was a Paulist, said that if they were to bring in five Protestants, he wanted a Jesuit as reenforcement, while the rabbi, who was Reform, agreed that against five Protestants an Orthodox rabbi ought to join the Jesuit. The result was a compromise, and they agreed to allow the priest, Father Peter O’Malley, to talk for the group. Father O’Malley came directly to the point:

“Our information is, General, that General Mackenzie has shot down one of God’s holy angels. Is that or is that not so?”

“I’m afraid it’s so,” Drummond admitted.

There was a long moment of silence while the collective clergy gathered its wits, its faith, its courage, and its astonishment, and then Father O’Malley asked slowly and ominously: “And what have you done with the body of this holy creature, if indeed it has a body?”

“It has a body—a very substantial body. In fact, it’s as large as a young elephant, twenty feet tall. It’s lying in Hangar F, under guard.”

Father O’Malley shook his head in horror, looked at his Protestant colleagues, and then passed over them to the rabbi and said to him:

“What are your thoughts, Rabbi Bernstein?”

Since Rabbi Bernstein represented the oldest faith that was concerned with angels, the others deferred to him.

“I think we ought to look upon it immediately,” the rabbi said.

“I agree,” said Father O’Malley.

The other clergy joined in this agreement, and they repaired to Hangar F, a journey not without difficulty, for by now the press had come to focus on the story, and the general and the clergy ran a sort of gauntlet of pleading questions as they made their way on foot to Hangar F. The guards there barred the press, and the clergy entered with General Drummond and General Mackenzie and half a dozen other staff officers. The angel was uncovered, and the men made a circle around the great, beautiful thing, and then for almost five minutes there was silence.

Father O’Malley broke the silence. “God forgive us,” he said.

There was a circle of amens, and then more silence, and finally Whitcomb, the Episcopalian, said:

“It could conceivably be a natural phenomenon.”

Father O’Malley looked at him wordlessly, and Rabbi Bernstein softened the blow with the observation that even God and His holy angels could be considered as not apart from nature, whereupon Pastor Yager, the Lutheran, objected to a pantheistic viewpoint at a time like this, and Father O’Malley snapped:

The plain fact of the matter is that we are standing in front of one of God’s holy angels, which we in our animal-like sinfulness have slain.

“The devil with this theological nonsense! The plain fact of the matter is that we are standing in front of one of God’s holy angels, which we in our animal-like sinfulness have slain. What penance we must do is more to the point.”

“Penance is your field, gentlemen,” said General Drummond. “I have the problem of a war, the press, and this body.”

“Penance is your field, gentlemen,” said General Drummond. “I have the problem of a war, the press, and this body.”

“This body, as you call it,” said Father O’Malley, “obviously should be sent to the Vatican—immediately, if you ask me.”

“Oh, ho!” snorted Whitcomb. “The Vatican! No discussion, no exchange of opinion—oh, no, just ship it off to the Vatican where it can be hidden in some secret dungeon with any other evidence of God’s divine favor—”

“Come now, come now,” said Rabbi Bernstein soothingly. “We are witness to something very great and holy, and we should not argue as to where this holy thing of God belongs. I think it is obvious that it belongs in Jerusalem.”

While this theological discussion raged, it occurred to General Clayborne Mackenzie that his own bridges needed mending, and he stepped outside to where the press—swollen by now to almost the entire press corps in Viet Nam—waited, and of course they grabbed him.

“Is it true, General?”

“Is what true?”

“Did you shoot down an angel?”

“Yes, I did,” the old warrior stated forthrightly.

“For heaven’s sake, why?” asked a woman photographer.

“It was a mistake,” said Old Hell and Hardtack modestly. “You mean you didn’t see it?” asked another voice.

“No, sir. Peripheral, if you know what I mean. I was in the gunship zapping Charlie, and bang—there it was.”

The press was skeptical. A dozen questions came, all to the point of how he knew that it was an angel.

“You don’t ask why a river’s a river, or a donkey’s a donkey,”

Mackenzie said bluntly. “Anyway, we have professional opinion inside.”

All were agreed that the angel was a sign—but what kind of a sign was another matter entirely.

Inside, the professional opinion was divided and angry. All were agreed that the angel was a sign—but what kind of a sign was another matter entirely. Pastor Yager held that it was a sign for peace, calling for an immediate cease-fire. Whitcomb, the Episcopalian, held, however, that it was merely a condemnation of indiscriminate zapping, while the rabbi and the priest held that it was a sign—period. Drummond said that sooner or later the press must be allowed in and that the network men must be permitted to put the dead angel on television. Whitcomb and the rabbi agreed. O’Malley and Yager demurred. General Robert L. Robert of the Engineer Corps arrived with secret information that the whole thing was a put-on by the Russians and that the angel was a robot, but when they attempted to cut the flesh to see whether the angel bled or not, the skin proved to be impenetrable.

General Robert L. Robert of the Engineer Corps arrived with secret information that the whole thing was a put-on by the Russians and that the angel was a robot.

At that moment the angel stirred, just a trifle, yet enough to make the clergy and brass gathered around him leap back to give him room—for that gigantic twenty-foot form, weighing better than half a ton, was one thing dead and something else entirely alive. The angel’s biceps were as thick around as a man’s body, and his great, beautiful head was mounted on a neck almost a yard in diameter. Even the clerics were sufficiently hazy on angelology to be at all certain that even an angel might not resent being shot down. As he stirred a second time, the men around him moved even farther away, and some of the brass nervously loosened their sidearms.

“If this holy creature is alive,” Rabbi Bernstein said bravely, “then he will have neither hate nor anger toward us. His nature is of love and forgiveness. Don’t you agree with me, Father O’Malley?”

If only because the Protestant ministers were visibly dubious, Father O’Malley agreed. “By all means. Oh, yes.”

“Just how the hell do you know?” demanded General Drummond, loosening his sidearm. “That thing has the strength of a bulldozer.”

Not to be outdone by a combination of Catholic and Jew, Whitcomb stepped forward bravely and faced Drummond and said, “That ‘thing,’ as you call it, sir, is one of the Almighty’s blessed angels, and you would do better to see to your immortal soul than to your sidearm.”

To which Drummond yelled, “Just who the hell do you think you are talking to, mister—just—”

At that moment the angel sat up, and the men around him leaped away to widen the circle. Several drew their sidearms; others whispered whatever prayers they could remember. The angel, whose eyes were as blue as the skies over Viet Nam when the monsoon is gone and the sun shines through the washed air, paid almost no attention to them at first. He opened one wing and then the other, and his great wings almost filled the hangar. He exed one arm and then the other, and then he stood up.

On his feet, he glanced around him, his blue eyes moving steadily from one to another, and when he did not find what he sought, he walked to the great sliding doors of Hangar F and spread them open with a single motion. To the snapping of steel regulators and the grinding of stripped gears, the doors parted—revealing to the crowd outside, newsmen, officers, soldiers, and civilians, the mighty, twenty-foot-high, shining form of the angel.

No one moved. The sight of the angel, bent forward slightly, his splendid wings half spread, not for flight but to balance him, held them hypnotically fixed, and the angel himself moved his eyes from face to face, finding finally what he sought—none other than Old Hell and Hardtack Mackenzie.

As in those Western films where the moment of “truth,” as they call it, is at hand, where sheriff and badman stand face to face, their hands twitching over their guns—as the crowd melts away from the two marked men in those films, so did the crowd melt away from around Mackenzie until he stood alone—as alone as any man on earth.

The angel took a long, hard look at Mackenzie, and then the angel sighed and shook his head. The crowd parted for him as he walked past Mackenzie and down the field—where, squarely in the middle of Runway Number 1, he spread his mighty wings and took off, the way an eagle leaps from his perch into the sky, or—as some reporters put it—as a dove flies gently. 

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